While picking up some prescriptions recently, my local pharmacist, who knows I write about home construction, asked me if I had any suggestions for how he should build his new house. Since I'm a big advocate for prefab, I suggested that he consider building his house modular. His response shocked me: "I wouldn't want to build modular -- it would upset my neighbors and bring down the neighborhood." I thought that type of thinking about prefab was ancient history, but his response was clear evidence that it is not.
After having written several books on the subject -- filled with evidence of the beauty and diversity of prefab -- I thought we had moved past the bias that prefab is synonymous with double-wides.
Prefabricated construction includes all types of buildings that are either partially or completely built in a factory. Modular construction is one of the most common types of prefab. Large boxes are built in a factory and then taken by flatbed truck to a site and lifted with a crane into place. A house can be built with one box or 36 boxes.
Another common type of prefab is panelized construction. Large exterior wall sections of the house are built in the factory and put together on site like a jigsaw puzzle. A similar method is building with structural insulated panels, known as SIPs, which are like sandwiches of oriented strand board, or OSB, fused together with insulation in between. Other types of prefab include concrete panels, prefabricated timber frames and even some log cabins. The savings varies with prefab, depending on the size of the house, location and type of construction.
With all that I've learned over the years, I would never consider building a house on-site. The feedback that I get from my readers, when they have acquired some knowledge of prefab, is that they've become believers -- and wouldn't consider the on-site option either.
My preference for prefab comes from years of investigating the best ways to build a house.
As an environmentalist, there are many reasons to prefer prefab. Much of the on-site construction debris goes into a dumpster -- the homeowner is paying for the debris, dumper and tipping charges.
In a factory, wood cutoffs are sorted and used for other houses. Many of the cutoffs from materials, such as drywall and metal, are returned to the manufacturer for recycling. Materials are shipped in bulk to the factories, so they cost less and shipping charges are reduced.
Prefab houses are built in an environment where the wood is protected from the elements and has less chance of developing mold and rot. And it and won't twist and buckle, creating thermal bridges where air will infiltrate. Furthermore, prefab houses are built by professionals under the watchful eyes of supervisors who are checking the work all along the process.
These advantages are all in addition to the shorter construction time and financial savings associated with building prefab.
Several years ago the Structural Building Components Industry compared the construction of a site-built house to a panelized one in a study called "Framing the American Dream." The panelized house took substantially fewer hours to build, used less lumber, created far less scrap and cost 16 percent less in labor and materials. Another study from a coalition of Philadelphia building experts, titled "Going Mod," found a $32 savings per square foot using modular rather than site-built construction.
Over the years that I have been writing books on prefab, I have became more and more conscious of the importance of building houses with healthier environments and increased energy efficiency. Heating and cooling houses currently accounts for about 40 percent of the energy used in this country. With the environmental and political ramifications of acquiring energy from fossil fuel, I thought there must be a way to build houses that require less.
I have also been influenced by the recent power outages in the Northeast. Twice in the last six months, it took Connecticut Light and Power almost a week to restore power to my neighborhood. I began to consider how wonderful it would have been to be somewhat independent of the grid (the power utility) and be able to sustain at least some of the energy in our house during those outages. Through my research I've found numerous ways of limiting the need for energy in the home and several ways to create energy without the need for fossil fuel.
These options would make the house more comfortable and save on energy costs. According to a report last week by McGraw-Hill Construction, the green housing market is growing rapidly, having tripled since 2008. Green homes, which comprised 17 percent of new residential construction last year, are expected to increase by 29 percent to 38 percent of the market by 2016.
Prefab to Prefabulous
About a year ago I decided to write a book profiling prefabricated houses that require minimal energy. I thought it would probably be difficult to find enough of these houses in this country. To my delight, I found more than I could possibly include in one book.
The houses I found are varied in style, location and method of construction -- but they are all smaller, very energy and water efficient, with healthy environments, and with a more sustainable use of materials. The result of this search is "Prefabulous + Almost Off the Grid: Your Path to Building an Energy-Independent Home." (It's scheduled for released by Abrams in October and is available for pre-order this week.)
I hope you will send in your questions and follow this blog to learn more about the advantages of prefab and environmentally friendly and energy efficient home construction.
Sheri Koones is an award-winning author of five books on home construction, with the last several focusing on prefabricated construction. Her most recent book is "Prefabulous + Sustainable." Her latest work, "Prefabulous + Almost Off the Grid," will be released in October 2012 by Abrams.
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